My "fertilized" blueberries

YOU NEED A PITCHFORK IN YOUR QUIVER

The Choice is Yours

Plants occasionally need fertilizer and when they do, you can choose between using either an organic fertilizer or a synthetic (aka chemical) fertilizer. Organic fertilizers are derived from natural sources such as ground rocks, animal byproducts and manures, and plants or parts of plants. Synthetic fertilizers, in contrast, are factory made.

Composted garden beds

“Fertilized” beds in autumn

Most of the nutrition plants get from the ground is from nutrient ions (an atom or a group of atoms with an electric charge). For instance, calcium enters the root as Ca++; the two pluses are the result of the once neutral calcium atom losing two electrons. Whether a fertilizer is organic or synthetic, the form the plant eventually sees as food is an ion. People sometimes use this as a argument that it doesn’t matter to the plant whether its food source is organic or synthetic. But . . .  Read more

Golden Celebration rose

TREES AND SHRUBS AND VINES, OH NO!

Plant Dreams

You’d think that after living in the same place for over 35 years and every year planting new trees and shrubs, that there would be nothing new for me to plant this year. Or, at least, no where to plant them. Well, t’ain’t so!

I’m now trying to wrap up getting anything I need in terms of plants or seeds for this growing season. Let’s see: Did I succumb to any of the enticements for new and wondrous plants mentioned online and in the slew of gardening magazines and nursery catalogues that appear almost daily in my mailbox?

Lady of Shallot rose

Lady of Shallot rose

David Austin roses, which have the pastel blooms and blowsy form of yesteryear’s roses, and the pest-resistance of present-year roses, are always a draw. But I have quite a few of them; do I have room for or need more of them? It’s cold here (or used to be), so I choose for beauty and hardiness, and, for an added attraction, fragrance. Among my favorites are Lady of Shallot, Dame Judy Dench, Golden Celebration, and LD Braithewaite. Read more

watering African Violet

REVEALED

Only for Gray-Haired Ladies?

I’m coming out. Today. Let me explain.

Decades ago, when just starting getting my hands in the dirt, I — perhaps other people, perhaps it was even true — thought it was only gray-haired ladies who grew African violets. As it turns out, a number of years after I had started gardening, I was offered an African violet plant (by a gray-haired lady). Back then, before I had accumulated too many plants, I was less discriminating than I am these days. I accepted.

I figured I could provide the special conditions African violets demand, according to what I read in numerous publications. “Proper watering and soil moisture is critical to your success,” I was told by one publication. I could provide the needed consistently moist soil with a potting mix especially rich in peat, compost, or some other organic material. I could monitor the plants thirst by lifting the pot to feel its weight or by periodic probing its soil with my electronic moisture meter. watering African VioletI could of course be careful to avoid leaf spotting by not spilling any water, especially cold water, on the leaves. Watering from below would do the trick, with periodic leaching from above to prevent buildup of salts. They also like high humidity.Pebble tray of African violets

Other requirements of African violets that were and are stated are temperatures 70-90 degrees (F) by day and 65-70  degrees at night. I was also admonished to keep an eye out for pests, including aphids, cyclamen mites, and mealybugs, and symptoms of disease. Root rot, for example.

Oh, and regular feeding should be administered except when resting (to the plants, not me).

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IN WHICH A SMALL GAS MOLECULE HAS A BIG EFFECT

It’s a Gas

Ethylene is so simple. It’s a gas made up of merely two atoms of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen. Simple gases are generally not the kinds of molecules that make plant hormones which, like human hormones, are generally complex molecules with dramatic effects at extremely low concentrations. Nonetheless, ethylene is a plant hormone. I thought of ethylene as I sunk my teeth into the last garden-fresh peppers of the season a couple of weeks ago. Note that I wrote “fresh,” not “fresh-picked.” 

Those peppers were picked week or two before being eaten. I picked any green peppers showing the slightest hints of red, then spread them out on a tray. Many gardeners do this with tomatoes. I like peppers a lot more than tomatoes so only occasionally try to prolonging the season of fresh tomatoes.Peppers, ripening indoors

It’s ethylene that’s responsible for the transformations from unripe to ripe. Ethylene is produced naturally in ripening fruits, and its very presence — even at concentrations as low as 0.001 percent — stimulates, in turn, further ripening. The ethylene given off by ripe apples can be used to hurry along ripening of peppers or tomatoes, by placing an apple in a closed bag with them.
Ethylene structure
If the fruits are left too long in the bag, ethylene will stimulate ripening which will stimulate more ethylene which will stimulate even more ripening which will stimulate more ethylene which will stimulate still more ripening, ad infinitum, until what is left is a bag of mushy, rotten fruit. Apples can do this to each other, so one rotten apple really can spoil a whole barrel of them. 

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MY NEW BOOK IS OUT!!

My newly published Fruit: From the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection (Abbeville Press, 2022), now available here as well as from the usual sources, is a fusion of art, science and history in a 4.4” x 4.7” hardcover volume of 288 pages.Tiny Folio book cover The pocket-sized folio is like a miniature coffee table book, a celebration of fruit-growing in an earlier America with a wealth of historical context and scientific information. The first half of the book is devoted to a range of apple varieties, many with unfamiliar and quaint names; most of these cultivars now lost to time. Subsequent chapters cover pears and other pomes, stone fruits, citrus, berries and miscellaneous fruits such as avocados, pomegranates, persimmons and nuts.

Here are some details:

Between 1886 and 1942, the US Department of Agriculture employed a total of 20 artists, mostly women, to paint watercolors of various fruit varieties. The seventy-five hundred luscious watercolors were used for educational and promotional purposes. And they are beautiful.

I selected 250 of the watercolors for their beauty, historical interest, and/or quaintness, and compiled them into this tiny folio. Would you reach for a Peasgood Nonesuch or Peck’s Pleasant apple, a Neva Myss peach, or (dare one say it?) a Nun’s Thigh pear from a supermarket shelf? 

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A DIFFICULT NUT TO GET TO, BUT WORTH IT (IMHO)

Free Eats, and Delicious

After last year’s bumper crop of black walnuts, filberts, and acorns, I didn’t expect much this year, nutwise. As I looked up into the few black walnut trees bordering the farmden, my low expectations seemed justified. In desperation of securing my annual supply of black walnuts, I gave a shoutout to the local community for black walnuts. I got good feedback — of trees, trees that, as the nut season approached, proved to be barren.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a few black walnuts on the ground beneath a couple of my favorite trees right here. A few days later, the ground was littered with nuts, perhaps not as much as in previous years, but still plenty. So it was time to get to work (details a few paragraphs ahead).

Walnuts in tree

Too many people have never tasted a black walnut. That’s too bad. The nuts are distinctively delicious (if you like them). I much prefer them to English walnuts, the nut usually referred to when anyone says“walnut.” Black walnut trees grow and bear relatively quickly, casting a pleasant dappled shade beneath their limbs. Just don’t plant one or allow one to grow where tennis ball size fruits littering the ground each fall would be objectionable.

Black walnut trees are abundant over much of central and eastern North America. The nuts are free for the picking, and usually yield more than enough to satisfy humans and squirrels alike. Many a homeowner who’d like to get rid of the nuts strewn over their front lawn will let you come and pick them up. A homeowner once even gathered them up for me!

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AN AUTUMN VEGETABLE FROM FRANCE, FROM BELGIUM, OR IS IT BATAVIA?

Saying It is Easy; Naming It, Not so Easy

Pinch your nose with your fingers and say “on.” Follow that with a long, drawn out, “d-e-e-e-e-v,” your mouth in a smile to get emphasis on the e’s. Endive. I once considered endive to be lackluster in flavor, so needed to be offset with this highfalutin pronunciation. After many years of growing endive, I’ve come to recognize a more distinct flavor, nutty and just slightly bitter.

Endive, frisee & escarole

Endive, frisee & escarole

(This is the first time I’ve used “nutty” to describe a flavor, having recently figured out what it means. Nut-like. Duh. Hints of nuttiness are found in the flavors of many foods, including seeds, wines, beans oils, cheeses, fish, and, of course, almonds, hazelnuts, and other actual nuts. Since writing the above description of endive flavor, I learned that others have also described its flavor as nutty. QED)

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BEST GARDEN EVER, DROUGHT NOTWITHSTANDING

Go Drip!

This summer has been one of the hottest and driest ever — and it’s been one of the best ever in the vegetable garden. Baskets of red, ripe tomatoes and peppers sit on the kitchen floor awaiting metamorphosis into sauces and salsas, dehydration, or just plain being eaten.Dog Sammy and garden beds

What about water? My garden plants are plump with water thanks to drip irrigation. In addition to benefits to the plant, drip is also good for the environment, typically using only about 40 percent of the amount of water used by sprinkling. That’s because the more pinpointed water avoids wasting water in paths and other places it’s not needed. Also because little water is lost to evaporation.Dripline with beans

The “drip” in drip irrigation tells you that water is applied at a very slow rate, which is especially appealing to those of us whose water comes from a well. With drip, the well has plenty of time to recharge between waterings.

Drip is also better for plants. Leaves stay dry, lessening the chance for disease. And rather than flooding the ground, which a sprinkler does at each watering, drip keep soil moisture within that happy window when larger pores remain filled with air, and water is held within smaller pores so that roots can both breathe and draw in water. (This is one reason for the more efficient water use of drip irrigation.)

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HEAT? DROUGHT? NO PROBLEM.

Physiological Workaround

Portulaca is a genus that gives us a vegetable, a weed, and a flower. All flourish undaunted by heat or drought, a comforting thought as I drag the hose or lug a watering can around to keep beebalm, an Edelweiss grapevine, and some marigolds and zinnias — all planted within the last couple of weeks — alive.

Portulaca employ a special trick for dealing with hot, dry weather, which presents most plants with a conundrum. On the one hand, should a plant open the pores of its leaves to let  water escape to cool the plant, as well as take in carbon dioxide which, along with sunlight, is needed for photosynthesis. On the other hand, the soil might not be sufficiently moist or the pores might end up jettisoning water faster than roots can drink it in, in which case closing the pores would be the ticket.

Portulaca gets around this conundrum by working the night shift, opening its pores only in darkness, when little water is lost, and latching onto carbon dioxide at night by incorporating it into malic acid, which is stored until the next day. Come daylight, the pores close up, conserving water, and malic acid comes apart to release carbon dioxide within the plant. I describe this specialized type of metabolism in my book The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden.

From the Pampas to my Garden

Let’s start with the flower Portulaca, P. grandiflora, which goes either by a common name that is the same as the generic name, or by the name “moss rose.” In truth, the plant is neither a moss nor a rose. But the tufts of lanceolate leaves do bear some resemblance to moss, a very large moss. And portulaca’s flowers, which are an inch across, with single or double rows of petals in colors from white to yellow to rose, scarlet, and deep red, are definitely rose-like. The plant grows to a half-foot-wide mound, with stems that are just barely able to pull themselves up off the ground under the weight of their fleshy leaves.Moss rose

Moss rose is native to sunny, dry foothills that rise up along the western boundary of the South American pampas. As might be inferred from its native habitat, this plant not only tolerates, but absolutely requires, full sun and well-drained soil. Such requirements, and low stature, make the plant ideal for dry rock gardens and for edging.

Moss rose is easy to grow from seeds sown at their final home, or started in flats for transplanting. Some gardeners mix the extremely fine seed with dry sand before sowing, to ensure uniform distribution.

Once blossoming begins, it continues nonstop until plants are snuffed out by frost. Moss rose is an annual, but sometimes will seed itself the next season. However, double varieties (plants with double rows of petals) grown this year will self-seed single varieties (plants with a row of petals) “volunteers” next year.

Plant It or Not, It Will Be There

The vegetable and the weedy Portulaca can be dealt with together; they are one and the same plant, P. oleracea. Somewhere in your garden now, you surely have this plant, whose succulent, reddish stems and succulent, spoon-shaped leaves hug the ground and creep outward in an ever-enlarging circle.

The common name is purslane, though it has many aliases, including pussley, Indian cress, and the descriptive Malawi moniker of “the buttocks of the wife of a chief.”

Tenacity to life and fecundity accord purslane weed status. Pull out a plant and toss it on the ground, and it will retain turgidity long enough to re-root. Chop the stems with a hoe, and each piece will take root. Even without roots, the inconspicuous flowers stay alive long enough to make and spread seeds.Purslane

My one consolation with having this weed in my garden is that it’s easy to remove, robs little nutrients or water from surrounding plants, and, being low-growing, casts little or no shade. Perhaps it even protects the soil surface from sun beating down on it or pounding raindrops from washing away soil. On the other hand, left unattended, it could take over a garden this time of year.

You Could Eat It

What about purslane, the vegetable? Take a bite. The young stems and leaves are tender and juicy, with a slight, yet refreshing, tartness. Purslane is delicious (to some people, admittedly not to me) raw or cooked, and is much appreciated as a vegetable in many places around the world besides its native India.

I have actually tasted the result of the plant’s specialized metabolism in summer by nibbling a leaf of purslane at night and then another one in the afternoon. Malic acid makes the night-harvested purslane more tart than the one harvested in daylight.purslane close-up

There are cultivated varieties of purslane for planting(!) in the vegetable garden. These varieties have yellowish leaves and a more upright growth habit than the wild forms. Wild or cultivated, the plants can be grown from seed or, of course, by rooting cuttings from established plants.

As far as actually planting purslane in my garden, I agree with the view of another garden writer who said “it is a reckless gardener who would plant purslane.” That does not mean that I do not grow purslane, though, for plenty keeps appearing despite my weeding.

Every once in a while, I again try eating it. I have enjoyed it in salads in restaurants to such accompaniments (or taste and texture disguisers) as feta cheese, olive oil, vinegar, and other strong flavors.

If you do opt to plant purslane, you must replant it yearly. Like the moss rose, purslane is an annual plant. Once established in the spring, both purslane and moss rose need no further care. Now, if only moss rose were a bit more weedy . . .

TWO DISAPPOINTING FAILURES, TWO DELICIOUS SUCCESSES

Help!!

As flaming red petals drop to the ground beneath my pomegranate bush, I’m not hopeful. Sure, the flowers are beautiful, but the plant is here to give me fruit.

To survive winters here in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley (Zone 5), my plant’s home is in a large flowerpot which I cart into cold storage in late December and back outdoors or into the greenhouse in late winter or early spring. Even my cold-hardy variety, Salatavski, from western Asia, would die to ground level if planted outdoors. The roots would survive that much cold because of moderated below ground temperatures, but new stems that would rise from ground level would need to be more than a year old before flowering.

Potted pomegranate, but NOT mine

Potted pomegranate, but NOT mine

Growing in a pot, my pomegranate (and other potted fruit plants) need regular pruning and repotting. To prune the pomegranate, I snip off young suckers growing from ground level, shorten lanky stems, and thin out stems where congested. I repot the plant every 2 or 3 years, cutting off roots and potting soil from around the root ball to make room for new potting soil.

When flowers do appear, which they do over the course of a few weeks, I dab their faces with an artists’ brush. Going from flower to flower spreads the pollen from male flowers to the female parts (stigmas) of the  hermaphroditic flowers.

Male pomegranate flowers

Male pomegranate flowers

Hermaphroditic pomegranate flower

Hermaphroditic pomegranate flower

Then I wait, my eyes concentrating on each flower and hoping to see the base swelling. Problem is most, some year all, the flowers open and then drop. Occasionally, in past years, a flower or two has swelled into a mini-pomegranate. Then also dropped.

Swelling pomegranate fruitlet

Swelling pomegranate fruitlet

I’ve ministered to this plant for years and it has never rewarded me with a single fruit. Help! Any suggestions?

Not So Idle Threats

Every summer, as my pomegranate drops its last flowers, I’ve threatened it with the same fate I wrought upon another of my subtropical fruit plants, pineapple guava. Beneath the thin, green skin of this torpedo-shaped fruit lies a gelatinous center with a minty pineapple flavor.

Pollinating pineapple guava

Pollinating pineapple guava

Over the course of growing this fruit for many years, I did harvest a few, small fruits from this plant, but not enough to keep me from reincarnating it as compost. (The flowers, however, reliably produced, sport the most delicious, fleshy petals of any that I’ve taste, with a strong, sweet minty flavor.)

A Most Delicious Fruit

Not all has been failure with my growing subtropical fruits. 

My most recent success has been with Pakistani mulberry, Morus macroura, native to Tibet, the Himalayas, and mountainous regions of Indochina. I first tasted this fruit a few years ago at a nursery in Washington State and was swept away by the delicious flavor, sweet with enough tartness to make it interesting, and a strong berry undertone. (Yes, mulberry does have “berry” in its name, but botanically, it’s not a berry; it’s a “multiple fruit.”)

Besides having great flavor, Pakistani fruit is also notable for its enormous size, each one elongating, when ripe, to between three and five inches!Pakistani mulberry fruit

Pakistani mulberry is easy to grow and needs no particular coaxing to bear plenty of fruit, which it does over the course of a few weeks. Mine grows in a pot measuring a little over a foot wide, with the tree rising about four feet high. Fruits are borne on new shoots that grow off older stems, which keeps the tree very manageable. Shortening those older stems each year makes it easier to muscle the plant through doorways to move it indoors for winter and then back outdoors when weather warms a little.

Very Easy, Very Successful, Very Delicious

My longest term and greatest success with subtropical plants has been, of course, with figs. (I write “of course” because I’ve written a whole book whose content is described by its title, Growing Figs in Cold Climates, and now is available as a video of a webinar I have presented on that topic.)Fig book cover

Like mulberries, to which they are related, figs — most varieties — can bear fruit on new shoots that grow off older branches. Figlets on new shootSo, like mulberry, the plants can be pruned back some so they’re more manageable to be protected from bitter winter cold. An in-ground plant, then, could be protected from bitter winter cold by being swaddled upright or lowered to the ground, even trained to grow along the ground; a potted plant is more easily maneuvered into a garage, unheated basement, or other cool location for its winter rest.

Right now, there’s nothing for me to do with my figs except watch them grow. Small figlets now sit in the plants’ leaf nodes. They’ll just sit there, doing nothing, for a seemingly long time. Once ripening time draws near, the figs suddenly puff up, becoming soft and juicy and developing a honey sweet, rich flavor.Bowl of figs